- Politics and Social Issues
The Global Warming gauntlet - disseminating science to the public
These were a couple of other titles I had thought of using: (for your amusement or dis-amusement, depending).
Look Out! The Cult of Al Gore and his Doomsday Troopers are coming for you!
Global Warming doesn’t mean you are going to be warmer, stupid!
Fallacy of Homogeneity
I was having a ‘debate’ the other day with a fellow hubber about global warming and it pretty much went the way that debate always goes; I support the scientific consensus of global warming and so am therefore a stupid liberal socialist job-killer who hates my country, is soul-less, and spends all of my time advancing junk science in the hope, evidently, of making Al Gore super rich. Which is unfortunately the way all debates seem to go in this country, isn’t it?
But this article isn’t about the global warming debate or the conservative/liberal spit-fight, which frankly, both make me feel like disemboweling myself. It is about a logical fallacy made by the person I was in a discussion with. It may have a technical name already but I don’t know it. I am going to call it the Fallacy of Homogeneity – Essentially taking a large group of people and institutions and considering them to all be exactly the same, with the same motives, beliefs and methods, etc., so that if any one of them makes a mistake all of them become equally wrong.
So the argument this person was presenting, essentially went like this; some guy somewhere made a mistake about global warming therefore the entire theory, everyone in it, and all of the science behind it are now proven to be wrong.
Now, I wasn’t really arguing about global warming. As far as I am concerned that debate is over and our time and energy is best spent elsewhere. All I was really trying to do was point out that the group of people and institutions supporting global warming are not homogenous; WE ARE NOT ALL THE SAME. And more specifically, and the part which is particularly important to me, is that Science is different from politics and social institutions.
The Orders of Science
The reality is that the different groups in the debate are separate from one another and that some groups are far enough apart that they essentially have no contact with one another at all. I put together the chart on the right to illustrate the relationship. The chart shows each group assigned to an order as well as the relationships with neighboring Orders. The colored rectangles represent the extent of interaction with other Orders. So for instance, scientific institutes have major relationships with secondary scientists and the government, and minor relationships with primary scientists and the public.
First Order of Science
The First Order of Science consists of the scientists that perform primary research. They are the ones in the field taking measurements and in labs running experiments. For a military analogy, they are the front line troops. The work done by this group tends to be very narrow and very specific.
Second Order of Science
This group of scientists synthesis and analyzes the data generated by the First Order. They are the scientist equivalent to colonels and majors in the army. While they draw from a large body of inputs they still only focus on one aspect of the larger puzzle.
Third Order of Science
The Third Order of Science are scientific organizations and institutes. They are the generals. They analyze all of the inputs coming from the First and Second orders and try to organize them into a cohesive framework. The IPCC is an example of such an institution, as are organizations such as the EPA and other scientific institutes and think-tanks around the world. They arguably are the most influential advisors to governments.
Fourth Order of Science
The Fourth Order of Science is the government. They are responsible for formulating policy based upon the science presented to them. They are also partially responsible for communicating scientific evidence to the public and can be influential in dictating the direction of scientific inquiry.
Fifth Order of Science
The Fifth Order of Science is us - the public.
Why any of this matters.
The scientific body of evidence regarding Global Warming is vast and complex. It not only strives to understand individually complex systems, but also how those systems then interact with one another to affect our planet. The sheer volume of work is massive. The average person has absolutely no connection with the individual research papers or scientists that are in the First Order. Just like the average person has virtually no connection with individual soldiers on the front lines.
Unless one is a scientist it is likely that the average person also never comes in contact with scientists in the Second Order. Just as most of us probably couldn't name a colonel in the army or say where they are or what exactly they do.
The Third Order of Science is when you first start to get some meaningful interaction with the public. The majority of people probably know who the IPCC is but most have probably not actually read one of their reports or know the basics of how they operate (where they operate from, what the working groups are and what they focus on, etc.).
There is of course a lot of interaction between the government and the public, but they too are a bit removed from the actual science. Additionally, they have a variety of interests and agendas that can be very different from the agenda of science. Their connection to science takes place largely through think-tanks and scientific institutes, who are already a degree removed from the actual science. For these reasons they are not always an ideal disseminator of scientific information.
Of course there is a huge piece missing from my analysis so far - the Media. Where do they fit into all of this? Well, I'm not entirely sure actually. There should probably be an entire order for social institutions, which would include the media, as well as entertainment and civic groups. It should probably go in between the government and the public, maybe I'll call it Order Four-point-five. It is here that things start to get really messy. The media can't be thrown out of office like the government. They don't necessarily have any code of professional ethics to guide them like scientific institutions. They therefore have a greater capacity to act solely upon their own personal agendas.
Anyone ever tried backing up a truck while towing a car on a one-axle tow dolly? The car's wheels can pivot, the dolly's platform can pivot, the dolly pivots at the truck hitch, and the truck wheels turn. It is basically impossible. One way or another it binds up on you. The way we get our scientific information is similar. Turned one way by institutes, another way by government officials, another by media, and then again by public interpretation, what hope does science have to get through free and clear?
Global Warming example
The following article is a good example of primary research. The article is called "Modelling Alpine Snow Accumulation and Ablation Using Daily Climate Observations," by R. D. Moore and I. F. Owens. Part of the abstract reads, "A simple snow accumulation and ablation model using daily observations of temperature and precipitation was used to simulate snow storage at a snow course".
Primary research, such as Moore's article above, is then used by secondary researchers, such as in the following article: "Northern Hemisphere Snow Cover Variability and Change, 1915–97," by Ross D. Brown. The purpose of his article is to "reconstruct monthly snow cover extent (SCE) fluctuations over midlatitudinal (~40°–60°N) regions of North America (NA) and Eurasia back to the early 1900s using an areal snow index approach". Understand? Ya, me either, which is the problem with ordinary people making claims such as global warming is all junk science. We just aren't qualified.
The IPCC is an example of a Third Order organization. Working Group I which deals with the physical science evidence regarding Global Warming released its Fourth Assessment Report in 2007 called "Climate Change 2007: The Physical Science Basis". Chapter 4 of that paper is called "Observations: Changes in Snow, Ice and Frozen Ground". Within that chapter you will find along with 200 or so other articles the Second Order article by Brown mentioned above.
The Wall Street Journal has an opinion piece called, "A Climate Absolution? The alarmists still won't separate science from politics". In it the author(s) are critical of the IPCC and some of the mistakes they have made. Are they right? Sure, it's an opinion and they can say what they want. Is there an agenda? You bet - the use of "alarmist" right in the beginning tells you their position. One specific point mentioned is the mistake the IPCC made about Himalayan glaciers melting by 2035. The IPCC was wrong - or at least they don't have evidence to support the claim - and there's no problem to call them out on it, but is this a fair analysis of the IPCC as a whole? I don't think so. Does it rightfully denigrate any of the science behind global warming? Absolutely not. The WSJ didn't mention the article by Brown or any of the other thousands of articles referenced in the IPCC report, or any of the 30 or so articles referenced by each of those thousands. In fact they didn't mention anything the IPCC did right.
So finally, we get to a citizen blogger, who wrote the article "Dumb and Dumber verses Global Warming". It doesn't take long to find out how she feels about Global Warming supporters, who she says are people who "lack the brain power to do anything but keep their respiratory system moving along". About the EPA she says "I want their offices closed down and all those environmental, emotionally geared kooks to lose their jobs". There is a lot more - it eventually becomes nauseating; "Most of them are unethical...the environmental movement that has lied and cheated and produced untold amounts of false data to support their baseless and unprovable claims...hysterical consistently WRONG solutions the liberal Green movement has foisted upon the world...merely lemmings following junk science...the global warming theory has been thoroughly debunked...The destruction of earth's is God's prerogative. Not a bunch of agenda driven scientists who twist the truth", etc.
So what evidence does she provide? A few blog articles, a wikipedia article, and some WSJ opinion articles including the one mentioned above. So let me see if I got this right? Her evidence that Global Warming is all junk science comes from a WSJ biased opinion which criticizes a single sentence out of hundreds of pages made by an organization which itself only comments upon the science.
The Military Sucks
I don't mean that - I just want to prove a point.
Can you imagine if in disagreeing with the Iraq and Afghanistan war I also disparaged the troops? If I said that all of our troops are mindless, murderous thugs, too stupid to realize they have been brainwashed by the military-industrial complex and its desire for cheap oil? Can you imagine anyone saying that? Even if I wanted to say something like that I would have no business doing so. I don't know any individual troops on the front lines and I certainly don't know all of them or have any idea what they are doing at the moment or much of anything about the work they've done over the past decade. I'd have no right to criticize them.
So how many of us know the individual scientists out there on the front lines? The work that they do and the work that they have done? I've known some and the ones I know have devoted their lives to what they do. They care deeply about the world and the people around them. And their country. They work hard, they aren't rich, and never will be, and care not for fame. They deserve our respect. Disagreeing with messages spun by political and social institutions doesn't give anyone the right to disrespect scientists anymore than disagreeing with the war gives someone the right to disrespect soldiers. Savvy?
1. Image from NASA Earth Observatory. http://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/IOTD/view.php?id=48882. Accessed on February 09, 2011.